‘We felt like failures. It broke us’: When your child stops attending school out of fear

Kerry Grantham’s son was happy in school until he became gripped with anxiety at second level. Trying to find alternatives has been a journey of pain, failure and isolation

When Kerry Grantham, a parent from Bray, Co Wicklow, looks up the phrase “school refusal” in the dictionary, she doesn’t recognise the definition.

“It is described as ‘an act of refusing to do something’. My son is not refusing to go to school. My son cannot go to school,” she says.

“If you had told me three years ago that my happy-go-lucky son would be gripped with terror in the school environment, a terror which has essentially stopped his life for the past two years, I would never have believed you.”

Education experts use different terms for young people in distress who feel they cannot go to school – school refusal, school phobia or school reluctance – but all agree it is becoming a bigger issue.


School principals say they are dealing with increasing numbers of cases of anxiety and school attendance issues since Covid. Often a child may be anxious, have an undiagnosed condition, be a victim of bullying or have issues with teachers. Either way, it is causing huge dilemmas for parents who often lack support or face battles to secure alternative services.

In the case of Grantham’s son, a panic attack in the second term of first year at secondary school was the first warning that something was wrong in January 2022.

“He has never truly got back into school without extreme fear,” she says. “Did the pandemic contribute? Of that I have no doubt. His final two years of primary school were hugely restricted, and he spent a huge amount of time in his room, like countless other children in Ireland.”

The last year of primary school is hugely formative: the disco dance, the trip away, the goodbye assembly, the graduation service. It all helps a child prepare for the transition to secondary school.

While his primary school did their best, Grantham says it was at the height of the Covid pandemic and pupils lost out on familiar milestones at a time when everyone had to keep their distance.

“All students had to wear masks and were actively encouraged not to socialise outside their pods,” she says. “Secondary school transition can be extremely hard for children in normal circumstances, so when I look back, I can see why my son developed such an entrenched fear of school and a phobia of group dynamics.”

The panic attacks he experiences, she says, are a “visceral body reaction”, where he appears to fear for his life and can last for hours. Sometimes, she says, he does not remember what happened.

‘We met a mother and son going through a similar journey and they have become part of our lives. To have someone who understands the pain of this journey is priceless’

“And yet as parents, we were left with no option but to try and ‘force’ him into school. Why? Because he was 13 and there appeared to be no other option for him.”

Grantham says it was the start of a journey of “terror, pain, failure and, most of all, isolation”.

They moved him to a smaller school; the family also worked with child and adolescent mental health services. He completed a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), hypnotherapy, physical examinations, blood work, MRIs and medication.

“I could write a book on that part; we threw everything at it to try and overcome his fear, including parenting courses and counselling. I took leave from my job for months because he could not be left on his own,” she says.

Every day without fail, she says, he would get dressed and pack his bag.

“Some days we would only get as far as the car park and some days he would manage time in the building but never without terror,” she says. “The school were understanding, trying any strategies recommended, including a temporary reduced timetable, a room to decompress and a way to exit class discreetly, but the fear was deeply entrenched, and he could not overcome it.”

It was only through talking to a family friend they heard about a local “alternative learning programme”, run by Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board. The group was small with two facilitators, running for two hours a day, three days a week.

“He was very anxious, however, he quickly overcame it and settled in. He flourished and enjoyed doing project work. We really felt like we got our son back. He enjoyed having a purpose back to his day and had no fear in attending the centre,” she says.

The service, however, is only offered in four-week blocks. While it was a glimmer of light in dark days, it was not a substitute.

“As his confidence returned, we decided to start his reintegration back to secondary school, and although he started a return with lots of confidence, he very quickly reverted back to severe panic. We were at a complete loss as to what to do and where to turn,” Grantham says.

“We felt like failures. There were so many emotions: guilt, frustration, sadness and anger. It broke us to a point where I feared we would never return.”

All children have a legal right to an education. However, Grantham says if you are one of the unlucky ones unable to get into school, your options are extremely limited.

“Twenty months into the journey we knew we had to stop,” she says. “I feared what would happen to him if we continued. With that decision came an immense sense of shame. We had come to terms with the fact that our son was going to have to take a different journey.”

Her son has recently been accessing a few hours of home tuition and was allowed back on the alternative learning programme, both of which she says they had to fight for. Recently, he was approved for a place on iScoil, an online learning platform that provides young people with a pathway to accreditation and progression.

“None of that has come easy,” she says. “I researched for hours every day, joined internet forums and tried to root out other families going through the same. We met a mother and son going through a similar journey and they have become part of our lives. To have someone who understands the pain of this journey is priceless.

“We have faced a huge amount of judgment: ‘If that was my child I would make them go to school’. In the beginning that tore me up inside, but now I can truly say, walk a mile in my shoes before you judge.”

Grantham is still worried about the future – not just her son’s education but the developmental impact. When she had to go back to work, he would sit in his room alone. She remembers once saying to a friend it felt like the world had forgotten about him.

“We don’t know why this happened, he may never be able to express exactly where this terror came from, but we learned that our son’s mental health comes first, nothing else matters,” she says. “We can only love and support him on his journey and try and open every door possible.”

Other options: What happens when a child drops out of school?

Alternative education: The Cork Life Centre and the XLC Project in Waterford are just some alternative education projects for children who have left mainstream. There are also Sudbury or democratic schools in Meath, Wicklow, Sligo and Cork that focus on self-directed learning.

Youthreach: Aimed at unemployed early school-leavers aged 15-20, it is intended to help young people return to learning and prepare for employment and adult life.

Homeschooling: About 2,000 children are estimated to be homeschooled by their parents or others.

Home tuition: In exceptional cases, students can be approved for nine hours of home tuition.

iScoil: An online learning service that offers young people a pathway to learning, accreditation and progression. It has an enrolment of more than 180 students and is the largest out-of-school provider for under-16s in the State.

There is also advice available on school attendance from Tusla (tusla.ie), CYPSC (Children and Young People’s Services Committee - cypse.ie), the Middletown Centre for Autism (middletownautism.com) and Parentline (parentline.ie).